One true voice: approaching unified communications

In recent years, the way people communicate has evolved at a greater pace than at any other time in history. The ubiquity of smartphones and apps like WhatsApp and Skype, along with the dominance of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, has made the popular communication methods of the nineties and noughties – email and SMS text messaging – look distinctly old-fashioned.

That’s not to say that email and SMS are dead – just that people are using different methods of communication for different reasons.

At the same time, advances in collaborative technology and voice over internet protocol (VoIP) has sent video-conferencing through the early motions of commoditisation, making it a reality for businesses of all sizes.

The need to keep up

The consumerisation of IT has meant that it is the job of CIOs to keep up with this pace. If they don’t, users are unlikely to wait around – and before they know it, CIOs are faced with large-scale use of potentially harmful applications on the company network.

All of this has brought to the forefront of CIO priorities the need to develop a unified communications (UC) plan – that is, a business collaboration strategy that integrates multiple communication services (real-time and non-real-time) into a consistent interface that users can access across different devices.

>See also: Unified Communications: Not enough without a unified vision

Within the UK, uptake of UC has mainly been among large enterprises, while SMEs seek more immediate requirements for tangible ROI.

While UC remains ahead of the economy in terms of growth and innovation, business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan recently found that 80% of companies are looking for a return on UC investment within two years, and 25% expect it within just six months.

It is clear that vendors and resellers have an important role to play in educating these businesses, not only on the productivity and customer service benefits that UC brings, but also on the long-term value of such an investment.

For resellers and vendors, managing these challenging expectations is becoming increasingly important – if customers haven’t achieved substantial ROI within a year, how do you convince them to continue investing in UC?

‘Demonstrating to businesses that ROI is achievable in the long term, and emphasising the importance of building the different blocks of their UC platform only as and when they need to, is key to finding a balance between customer and vendor, which can then lead to mutual success and market growth within the UK,’ says Daniel Fuller-Smith, sales manager EMEA at Toshiba Unified Communications & Solutions (UCS).

‘Businesses need to understand that UC is a reliable, long-term investment, with installations lasting from seven to ten years. Businesses should not look for immediate ROI, but research the vendor behind the reseller, and its product roadmap, before they commit to a new communications platform.’

An ROI recipe

Of course, justifying ROI is a vital ingredient in securing budget approval from senior management, many of whom may not be enthused by the idea of such a long installation life span.

What they want to know is exactly how it will bring tangible value to the organisation.

For one, business process optimisation makes it easier to manage costs by consolidating multiple communication methods and devices into a flexible platform.

By incorporating all hardware and software, organisations can reduce the pressure on their resources, including leasing options to eliminate capital outlay.

‘The implementation of UC also ensures that employees need never miss a call again, as incoming calls can be routed to desk phones, twinned devices or apps,’ says Jon Nowell, head of product management at TalkTalk Business.

A missed call might sometimes appear trivial when business is good, but realistically how many times will a sales prospect try to call before they give up and go with a competitor?

‘Reliability and dependability are major aspects of a business’s reputation,’ Nowell adds, ‘and are equally important to companies of all sizes.’

Work from anywhere

UC also enables users to seamlessly switch from one device to another, with video-conferencing and video-calling from any location.

This work-anywhere functionality naturally leads to a clear ROI by reducing unnecessary travel costs and promoting productivity by meeting employee needs for greater flexibility.

So how does the ideal organisation communicate through technology?

According to Anne Marie Ginn, EMEA marketing manager at Logitech for Business, it does three things well. ‘Firstly, it would deploy high-quality hardware, especially promoting video to enrich the user experience. It’s this quality of experience that will drive UC adoption.

‘Then, it would provide easy-to-use UC solutions that are intuitive and plug-and-play, along with technology that is platform agnostic so people can use their UC application of choice.

‘Finally, it would tailor UC solutions dependent on the demographics of the workforce – for instance, whether the person is a sales representative on the road, a homeworker or a mainly static office worker.’

Perfect communications

Ultimately, the ideal organisation has an all-encompassing approach to UC solutions across the entire global workplace, from desk to meeting room and mobile.

Some businesses have taken to UC with the philosophy of discouraging, some even banning, internal email in favour of instant messaging clients.

However, it's not a question of one size fits all. The key is for the enterprise or employee to identify which form of communication is most appropriate for the message, the sender and the recipient, and these methods need not be mutually exclusive.

‘It's not about one replacing the other,’ says Manish Sablok, head of marketing, Central, North and East Europe at Alcatel-Lucent Enterprise. ‘The way to go is to support UC in providing the most appropriate form of communication for the employee, the business and the application – whether this is email, instant messaging, video or audio, in an office or working remotely.’

The mobility is a vital ingredient, and mobile collaboration has shot up the ranks in terms of priority.

Deploying related tools is becoming an ever more urgent priority for companies everywhere.

It is now increasingly crucial to connect employees – whether in the office or out on the road – and enable them to work more effectively with external stakeholders.

But the challenges can be significant, according to Anthony Bartolo, senior VP, unified communications and collaboration at Tata Communications. ‘It can be difficult to connect closed and proprietary social platforms with the context of everyday workflow, which is necessary if they’re to become widely used,’ Bartolo says. ‘Mobile, social, gamification and video can all become part of the social enterprise’s toolkit, but a carefully considered approach is needed.’

Businesses can only achieve truly unified and integrated communications if they firstly lay the foundations for a multi-device environment, and secondly prepare their network for an influx of bandwidth-hungry mobile devices.

Spirit of openness

Having an open and flexible network architecture is a key step in laying these foundations, essentially allowing different devices and applications from different vendors and operators to talk to one another.

With this infrastructure in place, businesses can then manage these new communications environments simply, widely and securely.

‘They can benefit from network virtualisation technologies such as application-driven network infrastructure, which frees up space on the network and enables secure management of who accesses the network and on what device,’ says Simon Culmer, managing director of Avaya UK, ‘as well as from mobile device management, which allows different levels of network access to different users’ mobile devices.’

So with all this in mind, is the situation of employees communicating with each other on their own devices through applications like WhatsApp and Facebook a help or a hindrance to enterprise collaboration?

‘It is both,’ says Curtis Johnstone, UC product architect at Dell Software. ‘Anything that helps employees to communicate will typically help the speed and efficiency of communication in the business.

‘However, the usage of unsanctioned corporate communication systems is also a security and data governance risk that can not only completely negate any positive benefits the business has received from increased collaboration, but result in a serious blow to the business – including everything from loss of intellectual or strategic property to litigation issues.’

>See also: 4 steps IT should take to prepare for the UK’s new flexible-working law

And if businesses are truly concerned about the security implications of allowing BYOA (bring your own application) in the workplace, is there a business case for developing their own network-friendly messaging solutions?

According to Bianca Allery, marketing operations manager at 3CX, there is little need. ‘As instant messaging is an integral tool for both internal and external communication, it is essential that the solution is both reliable and secure,’ she says.

‘This is much easier to ensure if the messaging solution is part of a supported UC package based on a mainstream operating system, meaning that security fixes and software upgrades can be implemented easily.’

Better together

Two major trends will take hold in enterprise communications over the long term: movement to the cloud and integration of communications with business applications.

Not unlike many other business applications, UC can be delivered from the cloud using a SaaS model. This increases business agility and frees up IT resources to execute more strategic initiatives.

Regardless of deployment model (cloud or on-premise), enterprises will use new web technologies, such as WebRTC, to integrate communications functions into business applications.

‘When this is deployed on customer-facing websites and mobile applications, it can help enhance customer experiences,’ says Carl Blume, director product marketing at Oracle. ‘Communications being integrated into business applications, such as CRM systems, helps to accelerate decisions and increase productivity.’

What the experts say

‘CIOs and network planners need to pay close attention to the approach of multi-faceted communication. With voice, video and web collaboration growing and individuals demanding a high-definition and high quality of service, plans need to be put in place. Those involved need to ensure their network can cope with the increased stress and load of this type of communication. Unless this is confronted, people will not be able to collaborate effectively. Still, many organisations in the UK will have already upgraded their networks and have built-in headroom for extra capacity.’
– Rob Keenan, head of portfolio management, Northern Cluster, Unify

‘A good foundation to any UC solution is the underlying infrastructure. The network is of course a key part of this infrastructure and the quality supplied through the LAN/WAN can dictate the success or failure of a UC offering. As the network continues to support a growing number of communications devices, the pressure on wireless bandwidth is increasing exponentially. However, the wireless networks that many businesses have in place were simply not designed to deal with the sheer pressure that is now being exerted on them. Organisations cannot afford to remain on the back foot with an ad-hoc approach to network planning.’
– James Nowlan, principal consultant, Damovo

‘Everyone, remote and flexible workers in particular, feels more connected and emotionally engaged when they can collaborate by means of visual communication. As a result, they also become more productive. This makes in turn happy customers and increased sales. The ability to amass all different types of business content in a UC platform will also accelerate ROI by increasing the users’ ability to share knowledge and complex ideas with their audience.’
– Martin Nurser, VP and GM, Qumu EMEA

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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